Taiwan: What is behind the imperialist saber–rattling?

Talk of a potential military confrontation between China, the United States, and Japan over the question of Taiwan have escalated recently. The Biden administration is continuing the Trump administration’s policy of confrontation with China over the issue, with Japan following in tow. Meanwhile, China is rapidly expanding its military activity across the Taiwan Strait. The lives of people in Taiwan and the entire region are relegated to the chess pieces of the feuding powers. Why is this happening now? Where will it lead? And what is the way out?

The Dangerous Question of Taiwan

The question of Taiwan is as sensitive as it is complicated. It requires some context.

The issue arose after the triumph of the Chinese Revolution of 1949 and the expulsion of the remnants of the reactionary KMT regime to Taiwan, an island they only inherited from the Japanese in 1945 and which rose up against the KMT in 1947.

To contain the spread of revolution, US imperialism threw its backing behind the Chiang Kai-shek dictatorship in Taiwan against the newly established People’s Republic of China, maintaining the status of the former in the United Nations as the ‘true’ representative of China.

In the 1970s, however, in an effort to play China against the USSR in the Sino–Soviet Split, US imperialism began to make concessions on the question of Taiwan. It hoped to gain Beijing’s favour by gradually ending formal relations with the KMT government and recognising Taiwan on paper as sovereign territory of China. In the same breath, US imperialism still maintained some relations via the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which maintains American presence in Taiwan to ensure a government independent of Beijing continues to exist and continues purchasing arms from the US.

Chiang Kai shek Image public domainThe question of Taiwan is complex, the roots of which go back to the Chinese Revolution of 1949 and the expulsion of Chiang Kai–shek and the remnants of the Kuomintang to Taiwan where they established a military dictatorship / Image: public domain

In the decades since, Taiwan has remained outside of Chinese control, but a number of significant changes have occurred. The KMT survives, but Taiwan has been transformed from a dictatorship to a bourgeois democracy through mass struggles. Rather than remaining the CCP’s historical nemesis, the KMT is now an ally of the CCP on the island against the governing bourgeois Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The DPP’s historical roots in the Taiwanese nationalist movement lead the CCP to view it as a ‘separatist’ threat that it cannot have anything to do with. The Chinese state regularly threatens to “unify with Taiwan by force”, and in recent times has sent fighter jets to incur on Taiwanese airspace as a show of strength.

The logic of the exacerbating tensions between the US and China has turned the DPP into the primary conduit of US imperialist influence in Taiwan today.

Biden and US imperialism

In the past, while keeping a foothold in Taiwan through the Taiwan Relations Act, the US would avoid official and formal interaction with the government in Taiwan. This was primarily about avoiding open confrontation with China when the US could instead manoeuvre against the latter in more ‘subtle’ ways. Those days ended with Donald Trump when the latter accepted a call from DPP president Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 in the capacity of the US President-elect, a gesture reserved for countries with whom the US has formal diplomatic ties. The administration then engaged in open diplomatic exchanges with the Taiwanese government as part of Trump’s trade war with China.

Trump was indeed a bull in the china shop, upsetting the world capitalist order. He was not the cause but rather an expression of its contradictions. The trends he set have not been reversed. Just as Joe Biden continued much of Trump’s domestic policies, so he has maintained much of the latter’s foreign policies laid out in the past four years. In East Asia, this means escalating the open confrontation with China over a number of hot issues, including Taiwan.

Washington’s top military officer in Asia-Pacific, Admiral Philip Davidson, claimed during a Congressional hearing on 9 March that China could invade Taiwan in the next six years. This was echoed later in the month by Admiral John Aquilino, another top officer. Having the admirals “sounded the alarm,” the US State Department then issued new guidelines explicitly encouraging “work-level meetings” between Taiwanese and American officials.

This was followed by a high profile visit to Taiwan by a delegation of US politicians led by former Democratic Senator Chris Dodd, whose “personal closeness with Biden” was heavily emphasised. Dodd met with President Tsai and a number of Taiwanese politicians and officials on Biden’s behalf.

A third act of the manoeuvres soon followed, with the US pushing Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga into issuing a joint summit statement specifically mentioning Taiwan. While the statement itself is vague, there has been no mention of Taiwan in such a context since 1969, as to do so would imply Japan’s commitment to intervene alongside the US against China, should the latter try to take Taiwan militarily. On 26 April, Britain also announced that an aircraft carrier is sailing for Japan for joint exercises in which the US will be involved.

Image US Pacific FleetThe US government has increasingly eroded its ambiguous position with respect to Taiwan but it remains doubtful whether it would ever be prepared to step in militarily. The significance of this conflict lies in the fact that in Asia, the scales of military might have been tipped away from US imperialism and towards China / Image: U.S. Pacific Fleet, flickr

Beneath US imperialism’s bluster and newfound fondness for Taiwan (after treating it as an official non-entity for all these years) lies a panicky realisation that it is no longer the strongest military presence in Asia. Although China is still some ways from unseating American dominance globally, doing so in its ‘back yard’ is within its grasp.

This state of affairs was enough to set the strategists of western imperialism into a frenzy. The Economist sensationally declared Taiwan to be the “Most Dangerous Place On Earth,” observing that:

“The Chinese navy has launched 90 major ships and submarines in the past five years, four to five times as many as America has in the western Pacific. China builds over 100 advanced fighter planes each year; it has deployed space weapons and is bristling with precision missiles that can hit Taiwan, US Navy vessels, and American bases in Japan, South Korea, and Guam. In the war games that simulate a Chinese attack on Taiwan, America has started to lose.”

Biden’s latest moves, then, are an attempt to reassert dominance by flexing its potential might.

Taiwan does have a certain economic importance for the United States – as a world leading producer of microchips for example – but this is not the fundamental question. The US would give up influence over Taiwan if it came to it. Its significance lies in the fact that the island is becoming a testing ground of the competing strength of the two competing imperialist powers.

True, certain diplomatic niceties have been torn apart by necessity, but the US has stopped short of making an absolute commitment to defending Taiwan from China. This ambiguity is not accidental. The US cannot afford to actually engage in a war with China. The latter would do everything it could to win such a war should it break out over Taiwan. This ambiguity then serves as an escape clause for the US to avoid such a scenario.

The lack of an explicit commitment to defend Taiwan is also a means to coerce the latter into buying more weapons from the US. Arms sales to Taiwan from the US have consistently risen over the years. In 2020 alone Taiwan spent $5 billion USD on weapons from the US, while the latter has the gall to complain that Taiwan’s spending on defense is still too low. But not even the American seriously believe that the Taiwanese government with US arms alone could halt a Chinese invasion without the US directly intervening, something that even the rabidly imperialist Cato Institute has pointed out. Any kind of American ‘backing’ of Taiwan is really just taking Taiwan for a ride.

Suga and Japan: the wavering sidekick

Standing by the side of Biden and putting on a brave face is the government of Yoshihide Suga in Japan. Suga is hardly enthusiastic. As the Financial Times revealed, Japan was only coaxed into a joint statement mentioning Taiwan after frantic persuasion efforts by the US. Shortly after the US-Japan joint statement was issued, Suga clarified in parliament that Japan “does not presuppose military involvement at all” when it comes to Taiwan.

That Japan was so quick to draw a line on military involvement reflects the simple fact that it is no match for China militarily. One estimate suggests that Japan would need to double its defense spending from 1% to 2% of its GDP – to $100 billion per year – to effectively counter China on the military front. This is spending that the government could scarcely afford. Japan has the highest debt to GDP ratio of all the industrialised nations after its sharpest contraction ever last year. It is now entering its fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yoshihide Suga Image public domainThe Japanese government of Yoshihide Suga has unenthusiastically backed the US. The government is happy to play up anti-Chinese sentiment but it faces its own internal problems and is in no position to seriously challenge China / Image: public domain

Nonetheless, Japan won’t simply break from the US in their overall rivalry with China. It remains a powerful bourgeois country and is home to some of the biggest multinational conglomerates in the world that are in competition with Chinese interests on the world market. Japanese capital is deeply intertwined with that of the West.

There is also a domestic dimension to Suga’s calculation. His right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government is verging on a crisis. After inheriting the top post from his predecessor Shinzo Abe, Suga’s administration has continued to disastrously handle the pandemic. He himself drew backlash for a corruption scandal involving his own son. Discontent against the ruling government among the Japanese masses has expressed itself in a string of LDP defeats in regional by-elections, threatening not only Suga’s ambition for reelection but also the LDP’s dominance in Japanese politics.

In the face of this, Suga and the rivaling factions within the LDP hope to fan anti-Chinese sentiments amongst the Japanese masses to distract from their own failings. But open conflict would be disastrously unpopular. While Japan might continue to side with the US against China then, they can only go along with Washington’s policies to an increasingly limited extent.

China: backing into a corner

Whilst there is more style than substance to America and Japan’s latest bluster, this doesn’t necessarily mean that China can simply retake the island that its ‘socialist’ constitution enshrines as a “part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China”.

China may be approaching the military capacity needed to simply occupy Taiwan, but there are far more profound political considerations behind such a move. The nationalist rhetoric around “reunification with Taiwan” is a component of the CCP’s increasing national chauvinism that it whips up to stave off class struggle, which has been rising with the restoration of capitalism under its watch. In recent times, Chinese workers and youth have increasingly begun to question the system. In the face of this, the regime has doubled down on nationalist rhetoric, repeatedly sending warplanes into Taiwanese airspace.

The CCP’s nationalist rhetoric only serves to raise the stakes further, giving the regime little room for manoeuvre. Should they invade, the CCP would risk seriously impairing its credibility among the Chinese masses if it failed to take the venture to its conclusion. The big unknown for the CCP is the degree to which the US would be prepared to intervene.

But an actual invasion would present the obstacle of the Taiwanese masses that the CCP would have to govern after a hypothetically successful invasion. The growing conflict between US imperialism and China, and the increasing national chauvinism of the CCP has deeply impacted Taiwanese politics. The people of Taiwan are increasingly hostile to the idea of unification with China. The decades-long decline now sees support for unifying in single digits. Most adult males in Taiwan are also required to receive military training by law. Occupying Taiwan under such conditions would mean years of revolutionary upheavals and insurgency for the CCP that not only could cost them dearly but would also lead to increased political instability inside China.

That is why – in response to a right-wing internet-based movement inside China to call on the government to invade Taiwan while the US was engulfed in the pandemic – a state media was forced to publish an article arguing that “the need for militarily unify with Taiwan is not yet imminent.”

The role of Taiwan

Right in the middle of this standoff in East Asia are the Taiwanese masses, who have been treated as a mere bargaining chip by the great powers in the region. No side in this inter-imperialist conflict can bring the working people of Taiwan or the region anything of benefit. The only way forward is for the working class to take charge of the situation through a revolutionary overthrow of the existing system, which would spread beyond borders.

Xi Jinping Image VOA NewsThe regime of Xi Jinping has ramped up national chauvinism. The brewing conflict between China and the US has had a profound impact on politics inside Taiwan / Image: VOA News

The increasingly heated conflict between US imperialism and China has distorted Taiwanese politics. It has allowed a wing of the Taiwanese capitalist class – represented by the DPP – to present the fundamental antagonism in Taiwan as either Chinese domination or ‘freedom and independence’. In reality, what they mean by this is subservience to US imperialism.

It is entirely reasonable, of course, for the Taiwanese masses to reject unification with China on a capitalist basis. The CCP rules over the Chinese working class using Chinese chauvinism in the same way that the KMT dictatorship once did over the Taiwanese masses. Why should the Taiwanese masses, after decades of struggle, submit to a regime that crushes the democratic and cultural rights of the working class?

On the other, the status quo in Taiwan means the subjugation of the Taiwanese working class to the bourgeoisie and US imperialism. The bourgeois DPP, which has implemented the same anti-worker policies that the previous KMT administration planned, sells itself as the only alternative, defending Taiwan from Chinese annexation by leaning on the US. They would continue to stoke up nationalist sentiments and fears in order to continue the agenda of the ruling class at the expense of the workers.

The Taiwanese workers and youth cannot trust anyone but themselves. They must remove the capitalist class and their parties from power and take the running of society into their own hands. A free Taiwan can only be achieved by throwing off the shackles of imperialism of any kind through a revolutionary socialist transformation of society led by the working class. A socialist revolution in Taiwan would be a beacon for the masses of the whole region, including in China itself. The fog of war that has long mired the region can only be dispersed when the workers of all countries in Asia unite in overthrowing capitalism and establish a fraternal socialist federation of East Asia.